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Who are the Taliban?

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The Taliban – which literally means “students” or “seekers” of Islamic knowledge – grew from nothing in 1994 to become rulers of 90 per cent of Afghanistan by 1996.

It is an extremely young movement. The average age of its partisans is 14 to 24, and its leader Mullah Omar is 40 years old. It is an exclusively male Muslim brotherhood.

Most of its members grew up as orphans of the three wars in Afghanistan: against Russia from 1979 to 1989, against the regime Russia left behind from 1989 to 1992 and the intra-Islamic civil war which began in 1992 and continues to this day. A handful of leaders, like Omar, fought the Russians. But most of the Taliban’s fighters were raised in the refugee camps in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. There, they were taught by fundamentalist mullahs in the Madrassas, the Islamic schools.

Their ideology stems from an Islamic sect in the eighteenth century, the Deobandi. Their beliefs are close to those of the Wahhabi sect which dominates Saudi Arabia. But they are interwoven with Pashtun tribal customs as well, and can be summed up as a desire to restore a pure Islamic society in Afghanistan and beyond. The norms of the seventh century AD form their working model.

They have no constitution or policies as such, claiming their rule is based on the Koran and Sharia, Islamic law. They have no government separate from the religious leaders. The word of their leader, Mullah Omar, is absolute. Based in Kandahar this cleric assured his power by covering himself in the cloak of Mohammed during one of his very rare public appearances.

Omar rules through his students, a militia numbering at least 20,000, and his loyal clerics. The regime is based on terror. The young militia were, as one Taliban put it, organised gangs of “what Karl Marx would have termed the lumpenproletariat”. Their situation in the refugee camps in Pakistan was desperate. Outside interference in Afghanistan by Russia and America alike seemed to have brought nothing but misery. Hence their hatred of “modernity” and their idealisation of a distant golden age.

A flavour of Taliban rule is revealed by the edicts of their leaders. On capturing Kabul the Taliban immediately issued decrees such as:

“After one and a half months if anyone observed who has shaved and/or cut his beard, they should be arrested and imprisoned until their beard gets bushy . . . To prevent music and dances in wedding parties. In case of violation the head of the family will be arrested and punished.”

This sort of interpretation of Islam is fundamentalist rubbish. The Taliban claim that their decrees are merely the strict application of Sharia, Islamic law. Yet there is little justification in the teachings of the Koran for many of these policies and actions and little support for them among the majority of the world’s Muslims.

Women are the Taliban’s number one enemy. With each conquest in the 1994-96 offensive, their first act was to close down all schools for girls. Women were forbidden from leaving their homes unless they were in clothes that completely hid every single feature. And then they were only allowed out in the company of male relatives.

The Taliban also banned women from working, except in the medical sector.

The basis of this gender hatred is the belief that women are a source of temptation leading men away from the true path of Islam. Therefore women must be completely segregated from men. The only way to impose this is to deny them any civil rights whatsoever. This is where the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice – the Taliban’s secret police – comes in. They patrol, whips and guns in hand, to ensure that no woman transgresses any of the edicts laid down by the Taliban’s leaders.

The scale of the tragedy for women at the hands of the Taliban needs to be understood in the context of a society in which they were already treated as second class citizens and subject to being traded by their fathers for the requisite bride price.

• Prior to the Taliban’s victories there was 90 per cent illiteracy amongst women. When they took Kabul the Taliban promptly closed 63 schools affecting 103,000 girls and sacked 7,800 women teachers.
• Out of every 100,000 pregnant women in Afghanistan 1,700 would die during childbirth. The Taliban issued 11 rules governing the behaviour of women in hospitals (doctors, nurses and patients) every one of which hampers healthcare and has led to thousands more needless deaths.

But while women were a primary target the Taliban’s edicts aimed at everything classified as “un-Islamic”. Televisions, cassette recorders, even kites and homing pigeons, were decreed illegal, the kites smashed and the pigeons killed. Petty theft was punished by dismemberment. More serious crimes resulted in execution (often in public). Radio Kabul, renamed Radio Sharia by the Taliban, announced on 28 September 1996:

“Thieves will have their hands and feet amputated, adulterers will be stoned to death and those taking liquor will be lashed.”

Political, religious and national oppression was also brutally imposed by this all-Pashtun movement. To wipe out the last traces of the old pro-Soviet regime the pre-1992 president Najibullah, under the protection of the UN, was captured by a Taliban, castrated, had his genitals stuffed in his mouth and was then dragged around Kabul by a jeep before finally being shot. Every suspected sympathiser of the old regime suffered a similar fate.

Similar treatment was meted out to Islamic opponents of the regime, to Shi’ites, to national minorities and to those city dwellers suspected of being under western influence. All of this resulted in the creation of one of the most vicious dictatorships on the planet.

But it begs the question: how did the Taliban manage to get so far so quickly?